Timing can be everything, even if it's unintentional. That's what the new Firebrand Theatre in Chicago lucked out on last year when its founding members announced their mission to create the world's first feminist musical theater company.
Firebrand's press launch happened to fall on International Women's Day on March 8. That, in turn, helped to garner some major press attention for the nascent company.
"I'd like to say we planned it, but we didn't," said Firebrand Theatre Artistic Director Harmony France. "So American Theatre magazine picked it up. Playbill picked it up. And you know in Chicago there's a new theater company every other day, so we didn't expect the national exposure that we got."
Firebrand hadn't even announced a season of shows at that point. Yet news of a feminist musical theater company struck a nerve among many women stage artists across the country.
One was the international freelance stage director Victoria Bussert. Her past local credits include working at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and with Pegasus Players.
"[Firebrand] is a cause I believe in," Bussert said. "And I was thrilled to be a part of it in any way I could."
"[Bussert is] an incredible director," France said. "We're so insanely lucky as a brand new company to have this nationally renowned director step in."
For Firebrand's inaugural show, Bussert suggested staging the Chicago premiere of the acclaimed 2009 off-Broadway rock musical Lizzie. Like so many opera, ballet and other stage works before it, Lizzie is inspired by the notorious 1892 ax murders of Lizzie Borden's father and stepmother.
"We hadn't even applied for the rights yet," said France, adding that Lizzie had been on Firebrand's radar. ( France first learned about Lizzie since it was also under consideration by Bailiwick Chicago when she starred in their productions of Violet and Dessa Rose. )
"I was thrilled that it was something that they knew about," said Bussert, adding that she is close friends with Lizzie authors Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt.
Bussert has been associated with directing productions of Lizzie since 2010. Firebrand's production with be Bussert's sixth time directing Lizzie, following on the heels of the musical's London premiere earlier this year that starred Broadway veteran Eden Espinosa ( Wicked, Brooklyn ).
"It's very unique piece of theater … and it ultimately is about breaking through the patriarchyor hacking through the patriarchy," Bussert said with a laugh. "One of the things that I've discovered with every production I've done of Lizzie is that it changes the women who are in it. It takes all the women out of their comfort zones and becomes extremely empowering."
Like so many people, Bussert first learned about Lizzie Border via the macabre nursery rhyme: Lizzie Borden took an axe/ Gave her mother 40 whacks/ When she saw what she had done/Gave her father 41.
Bussert later became an unapologetic obsessive about all things tied to Lizzie Borden when she directed soprano Lauren Flannigan in Mira J. Spektor and Ruth Whitman's one-woman opera called The Passion of Lizzie Borden. Bussert's research prodded her to read transcripts of the murder trial testimony, and to even stay in the Lizzie Borden house ( now a bed and breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts ).
Bussert's knowledge also stretches to speculation that Lizzie Borden may have had a lesbian relationship with the actress Nance O'Neil many years after the murders. The authors of Lizzie picked up on this by re-imagining a thwarted lesbian relationship between Lizzie and Alice Russell ( in real life a much older woman who lived nearby the Borden home ).
"She and Lizzie share an attraction to each other and share a physical relationship up to a point," Bussert said. "When it comes to Alice lying on Lizzie's behalf, that's the one thing she cannot do. Which is very true to what happened with the real Alice Russell, because if she had not testified to the grand jury [about seeing Lizzie burn a dress after the murders], Lizzie would never have been arrested."
"One of the reasons that Lizzie Borden has captured our attention for so long is that this is one of the only 'crimes of the century' that was a woman," France said. "[The musical] goes into things that she dealt with her family and I also think part of its story is repressing that side of her and being a lesbian definitely does not her mental health by any means. There's also stories of abuse."
Since Lizzie only features four actresses, Bussert and France wanted to give more performance opportunities to the show's understudies. So a late-night concert version featuring highlights from the show will give Lizzie's understudies a chance to tear through the rock score.
"Hopefully if people love the show, they will be curious to see it with a different cast," said France about the understudy concerts. "Firebrand's mission is that we are committed to employing and empowering women on and off the stage, so if I can find opportunities to showcase and empower more women, I'm always going to do it."
Firebrand Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of Lizzie Nov. 11-Dec. 17 at the Den Theatre's Bookspan Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Previews run through Sunday, Nov. 12. Previews are $25, late-night understudy shows are $30 and regular-run tickets are $45; visit FirebrandTheatre.org .